Fela’s love of jazz and highlife music is widely documented. He named his first major band, Koola Lobitos (cats in Spanish) which literally translates to, “Cooler Cats”. This appears to be a wink at Victor Olaiyas’ Cool Cats, one of the most popular highlife bands at the time. A friend says Fela wrote, Bonsue, the popular Highlife standard for Victor Olaiya’s band.
“Koola” hints at the ambition to become more than a popular highlife band. However, it took several inventions and reinventing, twists and turns but he got there in the end. He became the legend he was born to be.
Once the family had reconciled with his decision to be a musician. His mother threw all she had into making a success of it. She was convinced of his already obvious musical talent, and felt he should be a commercial success, this influence coupled with her career as a leftist intellectual and agitator for African independence informed Fela’s ideas and drove him to “play for the people”.
Bonfo (RK1), has all the traits of his “trying to play African Music through jazz” phase. He called records released during this phase, “Highlife Jazz”. It didn’t do so good commercially. But it was a first into controlling his narrative as an auteur-musician. Previous releases had appeared as Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Highlife Rakers in the late 50s on 78s*. Other releases followed on the RK label through the early 60s:
1961 Fela Ransome-Kuti and Koola Lobitos Bonfo b/w Fere (7″ Nigeria, The RK label RK1)
1961 Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Koola Lobitos Nigerian Independence (highlife jazz) / Ayawa (highlife jazz) (7″ Nigeria, The RK label RK2)
1961 Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Koola Lobitos Koola Lobitos Special (highlife jazz) / Biko (highlife jazz) (7″ Nigeria, The RK label RK3)
1965? Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Koola Lobitos Onifere No. 2 (highlife) / Oyejo (highlife) (7″ Nigeria, The RK label RK4)
1965? Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Koola Lobitos Oloruka (highlife) b/w Awo (highlife) (7″ Nigeria, The RK label RK5)
1965? Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Koola Lobitos Ololufe b/w title unidentified (7″ Nigeria, The RK label RK6)
RK6 was the last release on the RK label. Between 1961 and 1965 he worked with Phillips West Africa Records and VOA (Voice of America) which produced a live recording of his Band.
According to Benson Idonije (music journalist and erstwhile manager to Fela), there was the London incarnation of Koola-Lobitos and the Nigerian version which underwent several changes until it settled with key players (Ojo Okeji, Tex Becks, Tony Allen, Tunde Williams, Yinka Roberts).
Fela’s early discography especially 7 inch and 10 inch records are very collectible.
Discography related information courtesy of http://endolab.jp/endo/africa
All pictures courtesy of Livingstone Studio (c)